Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Frontier Doctor by Paty Jager




These days it is unheard of to have a house call by a doctor, but back in the 19th and early 20th century it was the norm.

Most families tried to take care of medical needs themselves because the services were expensive. Mothers or older relatives usually knew a cure for most common injuries or diseases. But when no one knew the remedy or could help the patient a doctor was called.

A house call could last hours or days. The best doctors spent a good deal of time at the patient’s bedside. A wise doctor always sat beside the bed never looming over the patient making them more agitated. He kept a conversation going with family members hovering in the room. The age old practice of checking the pulse has been around since the Romans and so the doctor would pull out his watch and hold the patient’s wrist counting the pulse. He also consulted with the elders in the family to learn particulars about the patient and the symptoms. A doctor tested the patient’s forehead, neck and cheeks to decide if they were running a fever. Thermometers didn’t travel well in the rugged conditions.

The “laying on of hands” was recommended. After feeling to fever a doctor then felt the patient’s abdomen for masses, tender areas, and enlargements of organs. When through with that phase of the examination the doctor then listened to the heart and lungs with a stethoscope, asking the patient to breathe deeply. A doctor taped on a patient’s chest with his fingers and listened for abnormal resonance if the patient had a respiratory problem.

Using a tongue depressor, the doctor would check the tongue and lips for dehydration and anemia. Then it was, “Open wide and say ahh.”  This allowed the doctor to look at the patient’s throat.

If the patient was extremely ill the doctor stayed in the room with the patient, tending to their needs and dosing them with the prescribed cure.  In some cases the only thing a doctor could do was be a comforting presence for the patient. If the doctor had to have a prolonged stay the conditions were not always congenial. Bed bugs, lice, and an uncomfortable bed could be what he or she found when given a place to rest during their vigilance.

Medical equipment from the former Ashland State General Hospital
The doctor’s leather handbag or saddlebags held everything he needed to cure and heal. The saddlebags were often fitted with compartments to hold bottles and instruments. Some of the items in a doctor’s bag were: vials of powdered and liquid drugs, antiseptics, syringes and needles, sutures, tourniquets, plasters, stomach pump, and other instruments for diagnosing and treating injuries and illnesses.

Some of the rural doctors also carried a small leather case for scalpels, artery forceps, needles, scissors, and suture.

When the doctor found himself out in the wilds without proper equipment he would have to improvise.


Source: Bleed, Blister, and Purge: A History of Medicine on the American Frontier by Volney Steele, M.D.

18 comments:

Paty Jager said...

This was fun and interesting to read about.

Kai Strand said...

Very interesting. Can see where the term 'bedside manner' came from.

Paty Jager said...

Hi Kai! Yes, I found that interesting when I was doing the reading and research.

Deanna Jewel said...

Hi Paty! Great information for the researcher in all of us! Just stopping by to say hi!

Paty Jager said...

Hi Deanna! Thanks for stopping in!

Jacquie Rogers said...

Thanks for sharing, Paty! Frontier medicine was a lot different than medical care in the cities, so it was fun to have a look into a country doctor's day.

I remember the doctor visiting our house when my mom was sick. She was probably the last patient to get house calls in our area. He didn't stay, though, and we didn't have bedbugs. [shudder]

Caroline Clemmons said...

Aren't we fortunate to be alive in this age when doctors have more remedies. However, house calls from concierge doctors are resuming if one has the cash to pay the yearly retainer.

Paty Jager said...

I think some of the rural doctors may still make house calls occasionally. It was fun reading this info. Thanks for popping in Jacquie.

Paty Jager said...

Hi Caroline, yes, we are lucky to have more cures.

miracahills said...

Too bad country patients can't pay the doctor in fresh eggs, chickens and garden produce anymore if they lack money!

Interetsing, Paty!

Ellen O'Connell said...

I'm another one who had a doctor who made house calls as a kid. He didn't stick around and do the nursing part, though. That was Mom.

And, oh, yes, we are lucky to have the surgeries and meds we do now. It isn't just major illnesses, but even something as basic as arthritis as you get older. For my mother, buffered aspirin was as good as it got, and I can't even imagine what regular doses of that would do to my stomach. Now there are things like glucosamine which work better and do no harm.

mjdresselbooks said...

One of my friends had a doctor who made house calls not long ago. That is odd in this day and age. I think I prefer today's medical technology, but it's hard to find a good ole doc to listen anymore. Handy information in your post.

Paty Jager said...

Ellan, The new world of medicine is a wonderful thing. My house call doctor was my mom who was a nurse. ;0)

Paty Jager said...

MJ, It is hard to find a doctor who listens. I've been lucky with the "kid" I have for a doctor. He has been wonderful, especially when I had a crystal out and I kept telling him it was something in my head and we finally figured it out! I'm glad the info is helpful.

Devon Matthews said...

Thoughts of that stomach pump are making me queasy. I don't recall a doctor making housecalls around here but I've heard many stories from my mom about going into town and summoning the doctor when a baby was on its way. I saw on the news a couple of years ago that there are a few country doctors in very rural areas who are resurrecting house calls. A couple of days each week, they make regular rounds to check on their elderly patients. I thought, how wonderful is that!

Paty Jager said...

HI Devon!! I agree, it would be wonderful to have doctors who made house calls on the elderly. Good to see you!

Gerri Bowen said...

That was very interesting, Paty. I'd never thought about what doctors might carry with them. I remember my grandmother's doctor making house calls back in the 60's, in Baltimore.

Paty Jager said...

Hi Gerri. I wonder if then they still did because it would have been more of a neighborhood doctor? I'm glad the information was interesting. Thanks for stopping in.